Payne: Starter Nissan Versa is roomy, techy (just beware the gerbils)

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2021

If I were shopping for my first car today? My Neanderthal tastes haven’t progressed much since I was a 22 year old exiting college in 1984. Back then, I wanted speed, speed, speed. And some hatchback utility.

I bought a used VW Rabbit GTI. I’d do the same today. Cost? About $18,000 with 75,000 miles as I surf the used car ads (the Rabbit is now a Golf).

That said, it’s comforting to see that there are new cars available for that price that don’t stink. In fact, they are quite pleasant. Take the all-new 2021 Nissan Versa I flogged across the Arizona desert recently.

Sporting the snazzy, V-motion grille found on bigger siblings like Altima and sculpted body stampings across its hood and flanks, the Versa was a nice weekend date out of the Enterprise subcompact sedan rental pool.

The pool has become a lot shallower of late.

Stylin'. The 2021 Nissan Versa shows off its pleasant curves in the artsy town of Tucson, Arizona.

Detroit automakers have abandoned the segment save the Chevy Spark (a cutie that, alas, was given a coat of vanilla for its 2021 refresh. C’mon, GM, these wee products need to stand out on the shelf!). Want Detroit iron? Hit the used lot. That leaves the new sedan menu to Asian morsels like the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio appetizers.

To attract first-time American buyers, Nissan goes big. We Yanks take up a lotta room, after all.

I’m a 6’5” giraffe and was shocked that I could sit behind myself in an entry-level sedan. That size continues in the boot, where Mrs. Payne and I stuffed in two carry-ons, a tennis bag and another large bag. That’s more than a Kia Optima can swallow.

Entry-level prices can be a little deceiving for subcompacts as the standard, $15,930 Versa comes equipped with a manual and no Apple CarPlay. The former suits me just fine (my first GTI was a manual), but the lack of smartphone capability in the early 21st century is unworkable. Gotta have your smartphone running navigation when wanderlust calls.

So think of my SV-trim tester as the starter price at $18,130 — still well below what you can find in the SUV class. For that, you get the essential smartphone apps, blind-spot assist, cruise control (adaptive is available on the upper SR trim) and auto high beams. That’s a sweet suite of stuff — and on par with a used 2016 Golf GTI.

What you don’t get for your 18 grand is horsepower. The Versa is gerbil powered — 122 of them.

My interstate merges were done full throttle lest I be trampled by a herd of SUVs and semi-trucks. With a continuously variable rubber band — er, transmission — running the show, the Versa’s four cylinders make quite a racket.

The soapbar-shaped 2021 Nissan Versa is a smart buy in the subcompact segment starting at $15k. The Detroit Three have largely abandoned the class.

Leave Tucson to the north and the table-flat desert gives way to the rolling foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Twisties abound and the versatile Versa is fun to throw around — as long as you remember to get on the throttle early out of turns lest the gerbil wheel stalls mid-stroke.

Despite my heavy right foot, I managed an impressive 38 miles to the gallon — better than the advertised 35 mpg EPA — over some 300 miles of driving. That’s good news for the tight budgets of 20-somethings.

While you won’t confuse Versa’s interior for its fancy Sentra big brother (a contender for last year’s North American Car of the Year), it never discomfited my big frame.

The cloth seats fit nicely, and the instrument display is split between an analog speedometer and digital display. I thumbed through digital pages that featured mpg, mph and tire pressure data.

The interior of the 2021 Nissan Versa features comfortable seats for long trips, and (on the SV model and above) smartphone app connectivity and CVT tranny.

Typical of Nissan, engineers have included thoughtful details throughout. Door-mounted mirrors, for example, make for better outward visibility. Unscrewing a Snapple bottle at a stoplight, I yearned for a little door handle-mounted cubby to store the cap. There it was, right at my elbow.

Still, having spent the week before my Versa date in $30K-plus compact SUVs, I was quickly reminded of how spoiled modern electronics have made me. In the sub-$20K subcompact class, passive key entry is a luxury. I had to unlock the doors manually with the fob (“Thurston, is that a bead of sweat on your brow?”) as well as the trunk. Safety features like auto-shift-into-park-when-the-door-opens and adaptive cruise control have expanded the safety cocoon around more expensive vehicles.

That used 2016 Golf GTI will come similarly equipped, though it will be 75,000 miles worse for the wear. It will also have 220 horses under the hood, tempting Neanderthals like me.

If you prefer zero miles on the odometer — and don’t mind fuel-efficient gerbils — then the Nissan Versa is a fine choice.

With floating roof and rear diffuser treatment, the comfortable seats for long trips ain't bad lookin' for an entry-lvel vehicle.

2021 Nissan Versa

Vehicle type: Front engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger subcompact sedan

Price: $15,930, including $950 destination fee ($18,130 as tested)

Powerplant: 1.6-liter 4 cylinder

Power: 122 horsepower, 114 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 5-speed or continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.0 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 115 mph

Weight: 2,657 pounds (SV as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 32 city/40 highway/35 combined (CVT)

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; pleasant to look at outside

Lows: No standard smartphone connectivity; gerbil power

Overall: 3 stars

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